Brad Keselowski’s third Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series win in a row on Sunday from Las Vegas Motor Speedway gives him an automatic bid to the Round of 12. Has his hot streak put him in the conversation as somebody that can truly challenge for the championship at Homestead-Miami Speedway?
Mark Howell: There’s no better time to get hot than right now, unless maybe it’s during the third round leading to Homestead. Brad Keselowski is in fine shape to win his second MENCS title. The folks at Team Penske are used to performing under pressure, so seeing Keselowski win like this is not really a surprise.
Christian Koelle: Keselowski has really stepped up his game in the final three races. Ford isn’t at the disadvantage it was in 2017, so Keselowski will battle for the title at Homestead.
Zach Gillispie: Until recently, many were asking where the speed was from of the Penske cars this season. Keselowski has gotten hot almost overnight, and the team’s speed if evidently back. Historically, when Penske starts to get hot, it generally doesn’t cool down very fast. So look for Keselowski to be a real contender at Homestead.
Amy Henderson: Yes, absolutely. This is a great time for a driver to heat up. Keselowski is already through to the next round, no matter what else happens (and with the unknown looming in the Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL, that’s a big deal). He’s a smart driver with a smart crew chief and they’re firing on all cylinders as the Big Three is faltering ever so slightly. Nobody should be surprised to see the No. 2 as a major contender.
Around three-fourths of the playoff field encountered some form of a problem throughout the 400 miles Sunday. Out of the four drivers below the cut line (Denny Hamlin, Erik Jones, Chase Elliott and Jimmie Johnson), who’s in the most trouble?
Howell: I hate to rain on his seven-time parade, but Jimmie Johnson. His team has struggled all season, and it’s racked up some truly awful finishes. The No. 48 bunch seems stuck under a dark cloud that won’t fly away. If Johnson wins championship No. 8, it’ll have to be next year.
Koelle: In case you missed it, Johnson and Alex Bowman had speed on Sunday, speed we haven’t seen out of the Hendrick Motorsports camp in a good while. Denny Hamlin, meanwhile, just hasn’t been consistent enough this year to do anything for me, so I predict Hamlin will be one of the four eliminated drivers.
Gillispie: With the unknowns and potential carnage awaiting at Charlotte for the cutoff race, this weekend’s race at Richmond Raceway is the make-or-break race for the drivers below the cut line. At 19 points behind the cutoff and an average finish of 19th at Richmond, Erik Jones is in trouble. The other drivers below the cut line has averages comfortably inside 12th in their last five races at Richmond. Even with decent runs in both races, Jones’ points gap is a major hurdle.
Henderson: I really want to say Johnson, but if anyone knows how to find a way out when their back’s against the wall, it’s him. Chase Elliott is the one with the least call for worry; he’s been strong enough all season, which suggests he’ll rebound. The concern for Jones is that he’s inexperienced in the high-pressure Cup playoffs, but he’s had the speed to dig out of the hole. So my vote is for Hamlin. He is the opposite of Johnson; he struggles when the chips are down and lets things get to him. Hamlin’s biggest obstacle over his entire career is performing under pressure; he’s gone to Homestead with a point lead only to have Johnson win the title. Hamlin’s his own worst enemy, and that’s harder to overcome than a bad run at Vegas.
Ross Chastain’s performance on Saturday in the XFINITY Series race at Vegas proved that he is deserving of a competitive ride in the series. If he doesn’t have one at the start of 2019, is that a bad look for NASCAR?
Howell: If the XFINITY Series is truly the division where names are made, Ross Chastain will most certainly have a full-time competitive ride. His talent is impressive, his background is charming and his demeanor has “up-and-comer” written all over it. He’s a bright spot in the sport’s future.
Koelle: Ryan Preece is a prime example of this situation. Preece still doesn’t have a full-time ride in any series because of the fact that a few Cup regulars make it impossible for that to happen. The new rules next year will open the door for more drivers to get chances like this, but I don’t see Chastain having a full-time ride in the series with a competitive team. It doesn’t look bad, it’s just not a charity series. You have to have the money to back up your ride, and that is exactly why Chastain hasn’t been given these opportunities. DC Solar seems pretty interested in Chastain and not John Hunter Nemechek, which is rather interesting, but DC Solar only sponsors a limited amount of races that don’t have Kyle Larson in the car.
Gillispie: Chastain is the definition of an old-school racer. He has clawed his way to the top with grit and a dream. The watermelon farmer has never had big-time sponsorship, but he has proved he belongs in a top-notch racecar. In the unfortunate era of sponsorship-driven rides, Chastain needs immense help to get in a top ride next. Thus, if a truly talented driver does not have a top ride next year, it will be another bad look for NASCAR. This is the unfortunate era we are in.
Henderson: I don’t know if it’s a bad look for NASCAR as much as an illustration of the bleak financial position of the sport. It makes Chip Ganassi Racing look questionable if it doesn’t run Chastain for a title. He was dominant at Darlington Raceway and should have back-to-back wins for the team, and he’s playoff eligible, having run every NXS race. Larson can’t run, so, with no disrespect to Nemechek, who deserves a full-time ride somewhere, the team should see how far Chastain can go in this thing. It might be pleasantly surprised come Homestead to find him still in it.
The Camping World Truck Series has a one-month break before its next playoff race at Talladega Superspeedway. Which driver stands out as one who deserves a shot in the XFINITY Series during this break?
Howell: Johnny Sauter would be a good fit in a Chevrolet, and either Noah Gragson or Brett Moffitt would be a welcome addition to the Toyota effort. With 10 wins and 28 top fives among the three of them this season, any of these drivers would be competitive in an NXS event.
Koelle: Justin Haley. Haley has been getting a ton of bad looks from everyone just because they simply don’t understand him. Haley should’ve won the XFINITY Series race at Daytona International Speedway earlier this summer.
Gillispie: Many forget that time when Moffitt finished eighth at Atlanta Motor Speedway in a Michael Waltrip Racing car while subbing for Brian Vickers. Moffitt has bounced around from ride to ride since then. However, Moffitt has found tremendous success in the Truck Series this year for a team that has faced sponsorship and money issues. The four-time winner this season has proved he has talent and needs to get a competitive ride in the XFINITY Series.
Henderson: Haley. His run at Daytona showed he’s more than ready, and unlike Gragson, he’s not next in line at a top team. A few good races might cement him a shot to move up, and he deserves a chance for an audition.